Garden blogs are growing as place for strong, honest opinion

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The women of GardenRant.com will probably never be invited by HGTV to host a garden show.

Not only is the cable television home and gardening channel a frequent target of their -- yes -- rants (for not programming enough gardening shows), these bloggers are, as they will tell you on their Web page, "bored with perfect magazine gardens" "suspicious of the horticultural industry," "turned off by any activities that involve landscaping with plant materials" and "flabbergasted at the idea of a no-maintenance garden."

And -- oh dear -- they're also "gardening our (rhymes with 'ornamental grasses') off."

Garden Rant is one of the best of a crop of garden blogs that have been popping up like crocuses on the Internet, transforming garden writing in the process. Instead of relatively staid "how to" articles about backyard projects and semi-promotional pieces on the industry's favorite new bedding plant, the new garden blogs are livelier, quirkier and more passionate, reflecting the myriad voices of gardeners across North America.

They crusade, they gossip, they argue, they even change attitudes. Kitchengardeners.org's Roger Doiron was a driving force behind the creation of Michelle Obama's vegetable garden at the White House. And after Garden Rant's Elizabeth Licata blogged about a Buffalo woman cited by a city inspector for growing native shrubs and perennials instead of a lawn in her front yard, the outcry prompted Buffalo's mayor to visit the woman and express his support.

Then there's Awaytogarden.com, begun last year by Margaret Roach, former garden editor at Martha Stewart Living, now living in upstate New York. The blog combines hard-headed "how-to" with "woo-woo" -- what Ms. Roach describes as the joyful, spiritual side of gardening.

There are garden blogs that are more personal and local, too: The Bicycle Garden (bikegarden.blogspot.com) is based in Lubbock, Texas -- "Gardens. Birds. Bikes. Life" -- and features the musings of Susan "Livin' Large on the Llano" Tomlinson, a professor at Texas Tech University. There's Clemson University horticulture professor Lisa Wagner's blog about gardening in the highlands of South Carolina (naturalgardening.blogspot.com), where she posts beautiful photos of her carefully planted potato bed.

Even long-time garden writers have jumped on the Internet. Suzy Bales, author of 13 books on gardening and a prolific contributor to Family Circle, Better Homes and Gardens, the New York Times and other print publications, now has a Web site (suzybalesgarden.com) that includes not one, but two blogs: Green Thoughts, which celebrates gardening, and Trouble Brewing, which surveys garden problems.

Ms. Bales, who lives and gardens on Long Island's North Shore, travels widely -- her Green Thoughts blog currently features a photo essay on Singapore's national orchid garden and a post, "Mysteries in the Garden" -- "things I can't explain that just happen," such as last summer's cannas, which shot up to 8 feet.

But Garden Rant seems to be in a class by itself, powered by four strong-minded women, three from the East, one from California.

Susan Harris, a gardening coach and sustainable gardening advocate from Takoma Park, Md., will rant, she says, "about anything that misinforms or discourages gardeners -- from old-school quacks to idealistic do-gooders, to local laws that mandate conformity." Recently she waxed indignant about the "only-native-plants-in-your-garden" movement -- as stated, she says, in the National Wildlife Federation's Guide to Global Warming -- which, she says, is impractical.

Amy Stewart, the blog's California gardener, recently took on the purple cranesbill geranium, the Perennial Plant Association's 2008 plant of the year: "My God! It's revolutionary!" she wrote with tongue firmly planted in cheek. "It's a ground cover, it's an attractive front of the border specimen plant... in other words, it is -- exactly like every other geranium."

While Ms. Stewart noted that she likes geraniums, the industry's choice of this plant "takes sheer, unfathomable boredom with the plant kingdom. I can think of no other excuse."

Take that, Perennial Plant Association!

Actually, when asked for comment, that group's executive director, Steve Still, noted tartly that the flower in question is "reliable and dependable, not some flashy thing they (the bloggers) might like but which may not survive. What other jazzy flower out there is still in bloom in November in Ohio?"

Take that, Garden Rant!

All of this may seem much ado about nothing, but "If you look at food writing, in the New York Times or Saveur Magazine, it's much sexier and more fun," says Garden Blog ranter Ms. Licata. "Why isn't garden writing like that?"

Gardening is political, adds Michele Owens, another Garden Rant blogger based in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and a former speechwriter for governors Mario Cuomo and William Weld, "so garden writing and reporting shouldn't be so namby-pamby and disconnected from the larger world. Most of it reads as if it's written for children -- extremely fearful and easily shockable children."

Don't get these women wrong. For all their iconoclasm, they love Martha Stewart, who, Amy Stewart (no relation) says, "was great in the beginning because she did not talk down to her readers and hand them familiar cooking and gardening tips they already knew." Some of Martha Stewart's success as a garden guru can be traced directly to Margaret Roach, who, as "Living" garden editor (and, later, during Stewart's stint in jail, its editorial director), used her extensive knowledge and curiosity about plants to help coax American gardeners away from predictable impatiens and petunias to the wonders of hellebores and heucheras.

"I was very, very lucky," Ms. Roach says. "I traveled all over the world and interviewed people at the peak of their careers. I was such a nut. I wanted to know where everything came from."

A few years ago, Ms. Roach ditched her Armani suits and decided to live in her upstate New York country house full time. In 2007, she began her blog -- but not only that: she twitters, she's on Facebook, and she gets more than 5,000 page views a day. There are slideshows, videos and other bells and whistles on the site, and for the most part, she does it all herself, from her farmhouse kitchen.

Whether it's advice on caning raspberry bushes or appealingly specific instructions on starting tomato seeds (use a gentle fan nearby for sturdier, stockier plants), Ms. Roach loves the Internet because "we can publish with an immediacy and spontaneity unlike ever before."

Still, she adds defiantly, she's resolutely determined never to join a garden writer's association or flog a plant she's never handled herself.

"One of the reasons I'll never be a garden writer is that I only write about things I know," she says. "I tell you about things I'm sure of."


Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949.


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